Friday, December 7, 2007

Washington Social Diary

Rock Creek Park, Wednesday, December 5, 2007.
Lunch in the Snow with Ann Compton
By Carol Joynt

New Yorkers, and for that matter almost anybody to the north,
can’t understand the passive-aggressive mood that takes over Washington whenever it snows. All it takes is a dusting and we get weird. Schools let out early, people cancel appointments, minor and major traffic mishaps pile up inside and outside the Beltway. People whine and complain. But at the same time, it’s beautiful. That’s what Wednesday was like in the capital with maybe an inch of snow, our first of the season.

Ann Compton
Fortunately my lunch with veteran White House correspondent, Ann Compton, was not cancelled. We went to the relatively new BLT Steak, which has become popular for its sleek look, genuine Kobe beef and daunting hot popovers; I ate mine, Ann passed on hers.

It’s with people like Ann that the relevance of the phrase “the fourth estate” comes into Technicolor. Media in this town are the other branch of government and, just like there are Washington public sector names and faces that endure from administration to administration – think David Gergen, Colin Powell, Robert Gates, even Dick Cheney – there are media professionals who beat the odds and find longevity, which is especially difficult for anyone who happens to be female and in television.

Ann deserves note, therefore, because she has been covering the White House for ABC News since 1974, which was one year after she joined the network from a state reporting job in Richmond, Va. That long on that beat is a testament to skill and knowing how to keep one’s head down. Along the way she’s managed a long marriage to Dr. William Hughes, a gastroenterologist, and raised four children, three sons and a daughter.
Rock Creek Park.
Our lunch was to catch up on a lot of things, and we spent a fair amount of time focused on springtime. That’s because Ann is president of the White House Correspondents Association and responsible for mounting their annual dinner, which is set for Saturday, April 26. This dinner has become known as “Washington’s Oscars,” due to the parade of celebrities who zip into town for the event and the after parties, particularly the one hosted by Bloomberg Communications.

Ann’s main focus right now is to find the entertainer who will follow the President and, presumably, bring down the house with laughter. It’s a prestigious gig but also a tough audience. Past “talent” have included Jay Leno, Ray Romano, Darrell Hammond, Jon Stewart, and Steve Colbert.

On the subject of celebrities in Washington, she told an amusing story about Tom Hanks. “When he was in town for the D-Day celebration a few years back, he was brought to the White House, taken to the Oval Office and also given a tour of the press room. He was struck when he couldn’t find a coffee machine. He couldn’t believe White House reporters could do their jobs without a steady flow of caffeine. A few days after his visit a package arrived at the press room. It was a Pony coffee machine, with a note ... from Tom Hanks.”
The view from the Presidential Box of the rehearsal of the annual Kennedy Center Honors.
The Show Before The Show
By Carol Joynt

For thirty years one of the best treats in the entertainment industry
has happened in Washington, DC. It’s the annual Kennedy Center Honors, when celebrities and big money from everywhere converge for a weekend of tribute to five new inductees from various fields of the performing arts. For the weekend the Honors are in town, Washington glows with genuine talent.

Many know about, and attend,  the big night – Sunday night – when the official show is put on, but a lesser known perk is the Sunday afternoon almost-full-dress rehearsal.  The Opera House is only a fraction full, mostly with extras and “family of” some of the cast, and then a select few others who are invited in by the event’s creator and producer, George Stevens, Jr.  For two years he’s extended the privilege to me, and I’ve learned to set everything else aside to be there.
Clockwise from top left: The president's box, with "extras," portraying the First Couple and the honorees; George Stevens, Jr., confers with Steve Carell about his scripted remarks honoring Steve Martin; Ciara performs; One amazing roster of talent to honor Diana Ross: Jordan Sparks, Ciara, Terence Howard, Yolanda Adams, Smokey Robinson, and Vanessa Williams.
Clockwise from top left: Terence Howard; A showgirl homage to Steve Martin and his signature rabbit ears; Martin Short rehearses popping out from between magician Bill Irwin's legs; Smokey Robinson paying tribute to Diana Ross.
While there are cocktail parties and a Saturday night award dinner at the State Department leading up to the big day, the main events happen Sunday with a casual afternoon brunch for the honorees, performers, patrons at the Mandarin Oriental Hotel and other invited guests, a black-tie reception with the President and First Lady at The White House, and then the show.

Meanwhile, over at the Kennedy Center, it’s blue jeans and sweaters. The rehearsal is a delicious feast of entertainment, and  there are plenty of available 8th row center and aisle seats.  Up in the presidential box, in full formal attire, sit a “cast” of AFTRA stand-ins, who sub for the President and Mrs. Bush, the Vice President and Mrs. Cheney, and the  five individuals being honored.   This year’s inductees were director Martin Scorcese, pianist Leon Fleisher, Motown icon Diana Ross, comedian Steve Martin, and singer and songwriter Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys.
The cast of the Steve Martin tribute wrap-up their "vaudeville" homage.
Most of all, though, the Sunday rehearsal is a rare opportunity to watch gifted people sing, dance, conduct orchestras, play instruments, crack jokes, make touching remarks and then, if the first time isn’t perfect, watch them do it again and again until it is. Last year Christine Ebersole sang honoree Andrew Lloyd Weber’s “As If We Never Said Goodbye,” not once but three times. The first two were glorious, but she wanted to do one more. 

These "extras" occupy the presidential box throughout the rehearsal and had great giggles over the fact they get to use the "presidential toilet." They showed it to me. Not very photogenic. L-R: Rita Kincaid, Howard Erdrich, and Vince Careatti.
The rehearsal audience sat in rapt silence. It was the same on Sunday, when Russian soprano Anna Netrebko twice sang Puccini’s “O Mio Bambino Caro” as part of the tribute to Scorcese, which also included remarks by Francisco Ford Coppola, Robert DeNiro, and Cameron Diaz.

Diaz also narrated a small biographical film about Scorcese. The night-time audience may pay thousands for their tickets, but that doesn’t buy them a Netrebko encore.

When TV and movie star Steve Carell took the stage to rehearse the tribute to Martin he began by lauding Scorcese. When everyone in the room got wise to the joke, they laughed and he laughed and then he continued with a light-hearted and sweet introduction to a vaudevillian tribute to Martin that included Ricky Jay card tricks, a Bill Irwin set that had Martin Short pop out from between his legs, Kristin Chenoweth singing “Pennies From Heaven,” an instrumental hand-clapper from Earl Scruggs, with son Randy Scruggs and Martin O’Connor, and a little bit of King Tut. After one run-through, they did it again.
Clockwise from top left: At the end of the rehearsal of the Martin Scorcese tribute, Russian soprano Anna Netrebko applauds with stand-ins for Francis Ford Coppola, Robert DeNiro, and Cameron Diaz; A crew member walks across the stage of the Kennedy Center's Opera House. The backdrop highlight's the names of the 2007 honorees, among the names of past recipients; The 2007 recipients of the Kennedy Center Honors; Mark O'Connor, Earl Scruggs, and Randy Scruggs pay instrumental tribute to Steve Martin.
Clockwise from top left: George Stevens, Jr., confers with co-producer and son, Michael Stevens; George Stevens, Jr., scrutinizes the action on stage; The rehearsal line-up notes show host Caroline Kennedy's intro of board of trustees chairman Stephen Schwarzman. Ms. kennedy was represented by an "extra" at rehearsal; Executive Assistant Dorothy McCarthy with Producer George Stevens, Jr.
No surprise, it was the “songbook” moments that most got the pulse racing. Imagine Diana Ross hits rendered by Jordin Sparks, Ciara, Vanessa Williams and Yolanda Adams, who was backed by the Joyce Garrett Choir. Smokey Robinson talked warmly about knowing Ross since they grew up a few houses apart in Detroit, and Terence Howard, who may be too good looking for Washington, gave a younger generation’s view of her contributions.  The other songbook that is practically in the DNA of Americans is Wilson’s, and a few of his hits were performed by Lyle Lovett, Hootie and the Blowfish, and the young British schoolboy choir, Libera, accompanied by choristers from Washington’s St. Albans, Landon, Potomac and Sidwell Friends private schools.

Leon Fleisher’s story is incredible and moving. He began playing piano at age 4, studied with Artur Schnabel, and at 16 performed with the New York Philharmonic. He was launched into a hugely successful performing and recording career and then, suddenly, lost the use of his right hand to a crippling disease. He took up conducting and teaching – and playing only with his left hand – until doctors eventually found a way to cure his useless fingers through a combination of massage and injections.

In 2004 he made his first “two-handed” recording in more than 40 years. Yo-Yo Ma introduced and narrated the tribute film to Fleisher, which was followed by a bit of Beethoven from the Peabody Symphony Orchestra and the DC Choral Arts Society, backing acclaimed pianist, and Fleisher student, Jonathan Biss. Jaime Laredo did the conducting, and we got to see this lovely performance 2 ½ times. Every Sunday afternoon should be like this.
Hootie and the Blowfish play Beach Boys.
"American Idol" winner, Jordan Sparks.
Clockwise from top left: Art Garfunkel, opening the section of the show honoring Brian Wilson, began his remarks at rehearsal, "I love rock and roll music"; Michael Stevens helps Camera Diaz rehearse her introduction to a filmed Martin Scorcese tribute; Kennedy Center board of trustees chairman Steve Schwarzman rehearsed his remarks in black tie, all the better to be dressed for the White House reception. He told the afternoon audience, "I know you don't really want to listen to me rehearse, but thank you for you patience"; Kristen Chenoweth rehearses "Pennies from Heaven."
An image from the tribute film for Brian Wilson.
Backstage: Bill Irwin's black "magic" coat, and the King Tut prop for the Steve Martin tribute.
Left to right: Below the stage, coordinating producer Danette Herman, who has been with the show since it started 30 years ago, oversees the talent. A Los Angeles import, she does the same job for the Academy Awards. Drinks a lot of water, too; The basement "production office" for the Kennedy Center Honors.
Enough can’t be said about the team that George Stevens, Jr., pulls together each year to mount the Honors. As he willingly points out, the kind of talent that’s needed does not reside in Washington, and he must import from New York and California much of the technical crew, many who routinely work the Academy Awards, as well as the stars, and the back-up singers, dancers and musicians.

His son, Michael, is his co-producer, and throughout the rehearsal the two are in constant motion; sometimes together and sometimes apart. Keeping track of business in the front of the house is Stevens’ executive assistant, Dorothy McCarthy, while squirreled away in a small office in the basement is Carolyn Peachy, who has the daunting task of managing the parties, the guests, and the of seating many high profile (read: Big Ego) individuals in the Opera House and at the gala dinner that follows.

Today’s rehearsal went smoothly, to the relief of the Stevens’ team. Saturday, after a technical run-through of the Steve Martin tribute, a sizable piece of the set malfunctioned, causing one piece to fall and another to rise up and burst a water pipe, which then drenched the curtains and flooded the stage. “You never saw so many people with mops move so fast,” said one of the extras.
Clockwise from top left: Back stage between set changes; The audience at the Kennedy Center Honors always is rich with a diverse group of America's talented performers. The aisle seats go to the well known; The view from the stage. Later in the evening, the Opera House would be packed, but at rehearsal there were only a lucky few.
The backs of various pieces of permanent set, signed by some well-known names.
No one was hurt, and only a minor piece of the set was sacrificed, “which actually made the set better,” said Michael Stevens. “Less is more.”  Indeed. It’s always something.This year it was a piece of malfunctioning set; last year it was Jessica Simpson having a minor meltdown during the actual show. Speaking of the set, the lunch break offered an opportunity to wander the stage.

On the backs of the pieces of the permanent set, cast members and honorees from each year’s honors have signed their names. Scrawled on the plywood: Ray Charles, Jack Lemmon, and Bobby Short, to name only a few. That’s an opportunity made possible only at the rehearsal.

It’s a great show, and no one need feel left out by missing the rehearsal or the actual evening performance. Later this week, George and Michael Stevens and crew fly to the West Coast to put together the prime time version, which will air December 26 on CBS.
Clockwise from top left: Yoyo Ma's tribute to pianist Leon Fleisher; Yoyo Ma's shadow; Jonathan Biss and members of the orchestra.
If only this picture had a soundtrack: Jaime Laredo conducts the Peabody Symphony Orchestra, the Washington Choral Arts Society, with Jonathan Biss at the Steinway, doing Beethoven for Leon Fleisher.
Carol Joynt is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.

Photographs by Carol Joynt
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